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RPCV Congressman Chris Shays faces his toughest political challenge
RPCV Congressman Chris Shays faces his toughest political challenge
Shays, Sanchez gear up for rematch
By Ryan Jockers
October 27, 2002
Two years ago, bathed in congratulatory applause at Democratic headquarters in Norwalk, Stephanie Sanchez vowed to face Christopher Shays again after giving the entrenched Republican congressman one of his toughest political challenges.
Although she would put off her candidacy after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, she made good on her election night promise in June, and some local political observers say she is making a strong showing.
Still, beating the incumbent Shays in this election will be difficult, said John Orman, a Fairfield University political science professor. But if anyone can do it, he said, it will be Sanchez, 35.
"We really are a nation of incumbents," said Orman, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1984. "It's really tough. But that's why Stephanie's challenge is so good, because at least it makes it questionable: We don't know if Chris will automatically win this."
Shays, 57, has represented the 4th District, which includes 17 southwestern Connecticut shoreline towns from Greenwich to Bridgeport and north to Redding, since 1987.
His blend of fiscal conservatism and moderate social views, combined with his staff's reputation for responsiveness, have made him a household name. And with his efforts to reform campaign financing and his involvement in terrorism issues, Shays has become "a national congressman," said Gary Rose, a Sacred Heart University political science professor.
He also is well financed. Shays typically outspends opponents by a 6-1 margin. In this campaign, according to the latest finance disclosure covering fund-raising activity as of Sept. 30, Shays had raised $709,804; Sanchez, raised $95,752.
"When you put it all together," Rose said, "you've got yourself a pretty powerful man to run against."
But Sanchez is motivated by a belief that the values she wants to fight would make the 4th Congressional District a better place.
"It's not about me or Chris Shays," Sanchez said. "It's about values we care about, and who is better off to protect these values? Are we better off today than we were two years ago?"
Shays said he has succeeded with Connecticut's two Democratic U.S. senators in bringing federal funding to the district, and he is focused on the revitalization of Bridgeport and finding solutions to the district's transportation crises.
"I'm proud of what I've done," he said.
In 2000, with U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., running for vice president at the top of the Democratic ticket, Sanchez gained a surprising 42 percent of the vote against Shays, who, before that race had garnered at least 60 percent of the vote in the previous five elections.
But the district has been reconfigured to include more of southwestern Connecticut -- and thus more affluent and likely more conservative voters.
But more significantly, it is a world much changed since 2000 with terrorism now a top concern. On this subject, differences can be found between the candidates. Shays, a conscientious objector during Vietnam, is now labeled a hawk for his strong support of a potential American pre-emptive attack against Iraq to prevent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from amassing nuclear weapons.
Shays said he feels strongly that the nation is at risk of such an attack. "I feel so concerned about this I would willingly lose the election on this alone," he said during an editorial board meeting last week with The Advocate and Greenwich Time.
He said the United States has support on the issue, and that by showing force, the country will show leadership and allies will follow.
Sanchez, on the other hand, appeared recently at a peace rally in Westport that opposed striking Iraq. She supports going through the United Nations to reinstate inspections programs to dismantle the country's arsenal and attacking Iraq only with a coalition of allies.
Rose, the Sacred Heart professor, said the uncertain climate concerning terrorism, war and the economy likely would help an incumbent, particularly one such as Shays, who has experience on terrorism issues in Congress and is known as a fiscal conservative.
"People are concerned about very real concerns with national security," Rose said. "And people don't like to rock the boat during that time."
Another main issue is the future of Bridgeport, one of America's poorest in one of the most affluent congressional districts. Both want to be advocates in Congress for the city. Sanchez said Shays has not done enough to improve the city's economic development during his tenure in the House.
"After 16 years, we need an innovative approach," Sanchez said.
Some of the ideas Sanchez has mentioned for helping Bridgeport -- such as revitalizing its deep-water port for various forms of transportation -- have been echoed by Shays. He said he moved from Stamford to Bridgeport more than three years ago to help rid it of corruption and attract more businesses, bulk up the tax base and lessen the region's dependence on Stamford as its economic engine.
He said Bridgeport received $78.8 million in federal funding last year; Stamford got $49 million. "My focus is on the three urban areas," Shays said, referring to Stamford, Norwalk and Bridgeport.
Neither candidate favors casinos and both take credit for legislation forcing the cleanup of state power plants that pump the most pollution in the air.
Due to the redistricting, seven of 17 towns in the 4th Congressional District -- Easton, Oxford, Redding, Ridgefield, Shelton, Weston and Wilton -- have not been represented by Shays in the past.
"We are looking at it as a blank slate," said Donna Conway, president of the League of Women Voters of Wilton, which co-sponsored a debate between the two on Wednesday. "Neither of them have represented us. We don't know what they would do for us."
Sanchez, who now lives in Stamford, was a grants coordinator at Save the Sound, an environmental advocacy group based in Norwalk, before the campaign.
Sanchez has matured in her time as a congressional candidate, said Greenwich First Selectman Richard Bergstresser, who served a term with her, from 1997 to 1999, on the Board of Selectmen.
"She was always very disciplined," Bergstresser said, "and now she's very, very knowledgeable. She does a lot of work to study the issues and develop an opinion."
Shays was elected to the House in a special election with 57 percent of the vote in 1987 after the death of U.S. Rep. Stewart McKinney.
Proud of a fiscal and environmental voting record that has garnered praise from various advocacy groups, Shays is known for his nonpartisanship, breaking from his party on occasion, such as his vote against President Clinton's impeachment.
Though some political observers view Shays' seat as safe, the state Republican Party, according to its chairman, is campaigning hard.
"We're running this race as if we're 10 points behind, every vote is important," said Republican State Central Committee Chairman Chris DePino, adding, "and Fairfield County is the most important county in the universe."
-- A debate between Shays and Sanchez will be at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Westin Stamford Hotel, 1 First Stamford Place. It is sponsored by The Stamford Chamber of Commerce, The Advocate, Cablevision News 12, and WSTC-AM, WNLK-AM.